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IRAQ: It's Viagra on sale! Or is it?

August 30, 2008 |  8:44 am

Drugs_017

Yasir Mazen is only 20 years old, but already he is a successful entrepreneur, dealing goods from his stall in a busy Baghdad market. There's just one problem: Most of his products are counterfeit drugs and medicinal products that earn him big money, but that face the wrath of the law, starting Monday.

That's when the Ministry of Health has vowed to begin enforcing drug regulatory laws that have been ignored since 2003, when Saddam Hussein's fall opened Iraq's borders to all manner of imports. Many of those imports have included drugs and products that claim to have miraculous medicinal effects and that may or may not contain the ingredients needed to be effective.

Some have expired months or years earlier. Some are knockoffs of the real thing, like the little blue pills made to look like Viagra but manufactured in factories in China, India or elsewhere and lacking whatever the real thing contains. Then there are the nonpharmaceutical products that claim to have medicinal value, and which Masin says are his biggest sellers: penile enhancement pumps, sprays, gels.

"The ... pumps are very popular nowadays," said Mazin, who acknowledges his products go through no government testing. The boxes in which they are sold usually feature pictures of half-naked men and women and bear little resemblance to legitimate health products. That doesn't matter to his customers, who are willing to fork over as much as $75 for some items. Part of the appeal is that such products were never sold in public under Hussein, even if they could be smuggled into the country. Now, they are easily available, and everyone wants to give them a try, said Mazin.

That's what riles Adel Muhsin, the Health Ministry's inspector general, who says Iraqis are getting robbed. "Let's be realistic. They're scams," said Muhsin. He says his goal is to shut down so-called "phantom pharmacies" that sell untested drugs, and the warehouses that supply these pharmacies. He also wants every medicine sold in Iraq to undergo testing at a state laboratory to ensure it is effective.

The ministry already has begun stepping up enforcement. Last week, plainclothes police arrived at a market in central Baghdad and inquired how they could buy medicine. They purchased some pills from one of the vendors and left. Minutes later, uniformed police swooped down on the market, detaining vendors and confiscating their goods.

One vendor who witnessed the raid but did not want to be identified said sellers usually know in advance of such raids because they pay off corrupt police to alert them. This time, he said, the police suddenly changed the location of the raid, leaving vendors unprepared.

-- Times staff writers

Photo credit: Tina Susman

 

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